The Curious Power of Memorizing Poems
When literature lives inside your head, it shapes the fabric of your thought
Back in the early 2010s, as we began staring at smartphones all the time, people began worrying that all these digital thingamabobs would ruin our memory. If you could look something up instantly, maybe our brains would rot. We wouldn’t be able to remember anything, even if we tried!
I panicked, of course.
So I decided to test my memory — and see if it still worked.
Specifically, I decided to memorize a bunch of poems.
Some of the poems I picked were by well-known poets, like Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson and W.B. Yeats and Alexander Pope. Others were by Canadian poets I personally dig (like Gwendolyn MacEwen and Al Purdy and Margaret Atwood); and some were contemporary poets whose work strikes a chord with me, like Emily O’Neill or Tracy K. Smith or Alexandra Oliver. Either way, I picked a few dozen poems (or sections thereof) and recited ’em again and again to myself, as I wandered around the house.
And hey: It worked! Turns out it wasn’t that hard to commit quite a few poems to memory. The Internet had not, yay, destroyed my brain. Indeed, memorizing those poems was so sufficiently easy that I decided to make it a habit. These days, if I encounter a truly spine-tingling new piece of verse, I’ll often try to commit it to memory.
Except now it’s no longer about testing my mental capacities. No, these days when I memorize a poem, it’s because I’ve discovered something else …
… which is that poem-memorizing has subtle and wonderful side-effects.
Specifically: All those poems become enmeshed in the way you think — and even the way you notice the world around you.
Here’s a concrete example.
One of the poems I’ve memorized is “There Will Come Soft Rains”, by Sara Teasdale.
In the early years of the 20th century, Teasdale was an exceptionally well-known and beloved poet — her books were bestsellers, and she won a Putlizer prize. But she also suffered from chronic illness that frequently hospitalized her, and as a young adult she witnessed the horrors of…